How much to rock? The rising cost of music games.

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posted 10/9/2008 by Sean Colleli
other articles by Sean Colleli
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Has anyone but me noticed that the cost of music games has been skyrocketing like star power during a streak of long notes? Ever since Guitar Hero, music-based rhythm games have been enjoying cultural icon status, as the first video games in a long time to attract a huge user base and mainstream recognition. With that prodigious popularity, though, has come an ever-swelling price tag. This price increase isn’t just because the instrument-shaped controllers are expensive to make, or because legendary bands take a lot of scratch to sign—the games are ludicrously popular, and that gives the publishers and retailers the excuse to gouge.

I decided to spend an afternoon surfing various retailer websites, comparing prices so that I could provide you, the loyal reader and consumer, with the bottom line about these games. The new Guitar Hero game is coming in a few short weeks, and the Rock Band sequel is already here. I know it’s easy to get swept up in the marketing for these games, and hard to ignore their immense popularity (or whining kids with Christmas lists). Below I’ve recounted the brief but storied history of the recent music game revolution, documenting the price increases as well. Hopefully my research can put things into perspective, and help you keep a cool head while you do your holiday shopping.

Back in November of 05, the original Guitar Hero shredded its way onto the gaming stage, exclusive to the Playstation 2. Initially, the gaming press didn’t expect it to succeed—it came bundled with a mini plastic guitar controller made by a company called RedOctane, and as a result the game was saddled with an $80 sticker. Games with expensive, bulky peripherals rarely do well, particularly ones where the controller is so specialized. The guitar could only be used to play Guitar Hero, and at a time when new games rarely broke the 50 buck limit, Guitar Hero seemed like an exorbitant gimmick.

But the developer, Harmonix, had made their game well. The song list was filled with old and modern classics, the gameplay feverishly difficult but addicting. Few games have provided that kind of arcade-style compulsion, and on top of that, it was a fantasy everyone understood and wanted—real life air guitar. The strange guitar-shaped controller added immeasurable authenticity to the game, and even had a motion sensor in it—you could activate “star power” by tilting the controller vertically, doubling your score in the process and making the crowd go wild.

Guitar Hero broke the barrier between the dedicated gamer crowd and the average person, and with the PS2’s 100 million plus install base, it sold like crazy. Guitar Hero wasn’t just a game it was a phenomenon, the must-have fad of holiday 05. That $80 was pretty steep, but you knew it was darn worth it.

Bail out

Naturally, it didn’t take Harmonix long to deliver a sequel. Guitar Hero 2 showed up a year later, again on the PS2. The game had a bigger, even more killer list of songs, improved gameplay and a deeper multiplayer mode. Although the core concept hadn’t changed much, Guitar Hero 2 felt like a more complete, legitimate package, and gamers and casual fans alike dutifully shelled out the established 80 dollars for it. Six months later Guitar Hero 2 was released on the Xbox 360 with a few improvements and the option to purchase new songs off of Microsoft’s online service, Xbox Live. The game’s initial price was a slightly dearer $90, but regular “next gen” games for the new Xbox were $60 instead of the previously standard $50—a supposedly “required” price hike due to the necessity of programming 360 games in HD. Fans were used to games being ten bucks pricier on the 360, and ended up stomaching the higher price. Besides, the 360 version came with a cool, retro Gibson Explorer guitar controller. Across both platforms, Guitar Hero 2 sold twice as well as its predecessor.

And then things started to change. To make a long story short, Harmonix sold the Guitar Hero brand to Activision, and went to develop a new game, Rock Band, under publisher Electronic Arts. Competition had come to the music game scene. Activision got right to work on Guitar Hero 3, signing more high profile artists and asking RedOctane to overhaul their guitar controller. The new guitar, a sleek plastic mock-up of the Gibson Les Paul, could be customized with interchangeable faceplates, but more importantly it was the first fully wireless guitar controller to come bundled with a Guitar Hero game.

Activision planned to release Guitar Hero 3 on the PS2 and across all current generation game consoles: the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and most importantly, the insanely popular Nintendo Wii. Activision was all set to capitalize on both the Guitar Hero craze and the inexplicable phenomenon of Nintendo’s strange little white box.

But over at EA, Rock Band was taking the genre to a whole new level. Harmonix set out to kill their old creation, by letting gamers do more than Guitar Hero 3 could ever provide. With Rock Band, four players could play the lead guitar, bass guitar, drums, and sing vocals all at the same time. Rock Band was more than Guitar Hero or karaoke, it was the first video game to make you and your three closest friends feel like a touring, rocking band.

This is where the pricing starts to get a little steep, and veer into brand exploitation territory. On the Xbox 360 and PS3, Guitar Hero 3 finally hit the $100 mark. This hike is at least understandable. The wireless technology in the new Les Paul controller was more expensive than the old wired guitars, and with this wireless capability built into the 360 and PS3 guitars a price increase was inevitable. The sticking point comes with the Wii version, and its $90 price. You might think ten bucks less than the other versions is a deal, but considering the nature of the Wii’s unique guitar controller, it’s a royal rip-off.

The 360 and PS3 guitar controllers have the wireless tech hardwired into the case, and communicate with their respective consoles as if they were regular controllers. The Wii guitar is different. It takes advantage of the Wii’s wireless remote controllers, by having one plug directly into the actual guitar controller. The wireless communication, star power tilt sensor, even the guitar’s battery power, all come from the Wii remote and its wireless, motion sensing abilities. The guitar shell is really just a plastic box with switches and buttons in it; I know, I gutted one to be sure.

This means that you’re getting most of the functionality from the Wii remote that you already own. All of the expensive hardware is in the Wii remote, a $40 piece of technology. In the $90 Guitar Hero 3 package for Wii, you’re paying $50 for the game, and $40 for a plastic box that can’t even operate on its own. I think it’s awesome that the developers found a way to take advantage of the Wii remote, and use it to handle all the wireless functionality—disregarding the Wii remote and just cranking out another expensive guitar controller would have been a waste of the remote’s abilities. But they should pass that savings on to the customer.

But wait, it gets worse! If you want to buy a separate Wii guitar controller shell, they’re going to charge you $70 for it. That’s right, 70 bucks for a plastic box with switches. Considering what you’re getting, it shouldn’t cost more than $30, and that’s pushing it.
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